Surveys to assess “intellectual freedom and diversity of viewpoints” on college and university campuses are set to be sent to students and employees on Monday, after a federal judge refused to block the State to distribute the questionnaires.
U.S. District Chief Judge Mark Walker on Friday denied a request by opponents for an injunction against the polls.
Lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis last year approved a law (HB 233) requiring schools to distribute the polls annually. But the measure prompted a legal challenge from the United Faculty of Florida union and other opponents who argued it violated the First Amendment.
As investigations were set to hit email inboxes for the first time on Monday morning, lawyers for opponents filed an emergency motion seeking a preliminary injunction.
During a hearing on Friday, Walker expressed skepticism about the plaintiffs’ arguments. For example, lawyers for opponents have claimed that the survey results could be used by the Republican-controlled legislature to “determine” which campuses hold the most liberal beliefs.
Lawmakers could then take retaliatory action, such as cutting funding to certain colleges or universities, the lawyers said.
“Can’t they (state lawmakers) do exactly what you’re talking about without the investigation?” Walker asked.
George Levesque, an attorney representing the state, said the law “is not about trying to balance ideologies” at Florida colleges and universities and simply ignoring investigations is an option.
“There are no restrictions, no rights denied, based on whether or not you complete the survey,” Levesque said.
But Alexi Velez, an attorney for opponents of the inquiry, called the law a potential chilling effect on student and faculty speech.
“We have a First Amendment claim even if no funding is cut,” Velez said, adding that the “damage” from a scary speech would be immediate as soon as the investigations emerge.
Velez also said “there is every reason to believe” that the identities of the people filling out the polls could be determined. Especially at small institutions like state colleges, Velez argued, a respondent could be identified by basic demographic information requested by a survey.
But Walker said there was virtually no legal precedent for “any instance of any court” quashing an anonymous, voluntary investigation.
In denying the injunction request, Walker clarified that opponents could appeal his decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“It’s definitely a case where I would welcome them to explain why I’m wrong,” Walker said.
Online questionnaires will open at 12:1 a.m. Monday, state university system chancellor Marshall Criser said this week.
The results of the survey responses will be collected by schools and communicated to Heads of State by September.
Meanwhile, the legal battle over whether the polls violate free speech rights is expected to continue later this year, as Walker has scheduled a trial to begin on September 19.